Category Archives: Cuba

(NYT) Microwave Weapons Are Prime Suspect in Ills of U.S. Embassy Workers

(NYT) Doctors and scientists say microwave strikes may have caused sonic delusions and very real brain damage among embassy staff and family members.

U.S. Marines outside the embassy in Havana in February. Diplomats working here reported strange noises and mysterious symptoms that doctors and scientists say may have resulted from strikes with microwave weapons.CreditCreditAdalberto Roque/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

During the Cold War, Washington feared that Moscow was seeking to turnmicrowave radiation into covert weapons of mind control.

More recently, the American military itself sought to develop microwave arms that could invisibly beam painfully loud booms and even spoken words into people’s heads. The aims were to disable attackers and wage psychological warfare.

Now, doctors and scientists say such unconventional weapons may have caused the baffling symptoms and ailments that, starting in late 2016, hit more than three dozen American diplomats and family members in Cuba and China. The Cuban incidents resulted in a diplomatic rupture between Havana and Washington.

The medical team that examined 21 affected diplomats from Cuba made no mention of microwaves in its detailed report published in JAMA in March. But Douglas H. Smith, the study’s lead author and director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a recent interview that microwaves were now considered a main suspect and that the team was increasingly sure the diplomats had suffered brain injury.

“Everybody was relatively skeptical at first,” he said, “and everyone now agrees there’s something there.” Dr. Smith remarked that the diplomats and doctors jokingly refer to the trauma as the immaculate concussion.

Strikes with microwaves, some experts now argue, more plausibly explain reports of painful sounds, ills and traumas than do other possible culprits — sonic attacks, viral infections and contagious anxiety.

In particular, a growing number of analysts cite an eerie phenomenon known as the Frey effect, named after Allan H. Frey, an American scientist. Long ago, he found that microwaves can trick the brain into perceiving what seem to be ordinary sounds.

Hearing Microwaves

Scientists have known for decades that the brain can perceive some microwaves as sound.

MICROWAVES hitting the head in the area around the temporal lobe were perceived as sound in a 1962 experiment. Several theories have sought to explain the exact mechanism but it remains in dispute.

SOUND WAVES entering the ear make the eardrum vibrate. These vibrations are conveyed to the cochlea and converted into electrical signals. The brain’s temporal lobes receive signals from the ears and process them into sounds and speech.

The false sensations, the experts say, may account for a defining symptom of the diplomatic incidents — the perception of loud noises, including ringing, buzzing and grinding. Initially, experts cited those symptoms as evidence of stealthy attacks with sonic weapons.

Members of Jason, a secretive group of elite scientists that helps the federal government assess new threats to national security, say it has been scrutinizing the diplomatic mystery this summer and weighing possible explanations, including microwaves.

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Asked about the microwave theory of the case, the State Department said the investigation had yet to identify the cause or source of the attacks. And the F.B.I. declined to comment on the status of the investigation or any theories.

The microwave idea teems with unanswered questions. Who fired the beams? The Russian government? The Cuban government? A rogue Cuban faction sympathetic to Moscow? And, if so, where did the attackers get the unconventional arms?

At his home outside Washington, Mr. Frey, the scientist who uncovered the neural phenomenon, said federal investigators have questioned him on the diplomatic riddle and that microwave radiation is considered a possible cause.

Mr. Frey, now 83, has traveled widely and long served as a contractor and a consultant to a number of federal agencies. He speculated that Cubans aligned with Russia, the nation’s longtime ally, might have launched microwave strikes in attempts to undermine developing ties between Cuba and the United States.

“It’s a possibility,” he said at his kitchen table. “In dictatorships, you often have factions that think nothing of going against the general policy if it suits their needs. I think that’s a perfectly viable explanation.”

Allan H. Frey, at his home outside Washington. In 1960, he stumbled on an acoustic effect of microwaves that was eventually named after him.CreditAlex Wroblewski for The New York Times

Microwaves are ubiquitous in modern life. The short radio waves power radars, cook foods, relay messages and link cellphones to antenna towers. They’re a form of electromagnetic radiation on the same spectrum as light and X-rays, only at the opposite end.

While radio broadcasting can employ waves a mile or more in length, microwaves range in size from roughly a foot to a tiny fraction of an inch. They’re seen as harmless in such everyday uses as microwaving foods. But their diminutive size also enables tight focusing, as when dish antennas turn disorganized rays into concentrated beams.

The dimensions of the human head, scientists say, make it a fairly good antenna for picking up microwave signals.

Mr. Frey, a biologist, said he stumbled on the acoustic effect in 1960 while working for General Electric’s Advanced Electronics Center at Cornell University. A man who measured radar signals at a nearby G.E. facility came up to him at a meeting and confided that he could hear the beam’s pulses — zip, zip, zip.

Intrigued, Mr. Frey traveled to the man’s workplace in Syracuse and positioned himself in a radar beam. “Lo,” he recalled, “I could hear it, too.”

Mr. Frey’s resulting papers — reporting that even deaf people could hear the false sounds — founded a new field of study on radiation’s neural impacts. Mr. Frey’s first paper, in 1961, reported that power densities 160 times lower than “the standard maximum safe level for continuous exposure” could induce the sonic delusions.

His second paper, in 1962, pinpointed the brain’s receptor site as the temporal lobes, which extend beneath the temples. Each lobe bears a small region — the auditory cortex — that processes nerve signals from the outer and inner ears.

Investigators raced to confirm and extend Mr. Frey’s findings. At first they named the phenomenon after him, but eventually called it the microwave auditory effect and, in time, more generally, radio-frequency hearing.

The Soviets took notice. Not long after his initial discoveries, Mr. Frey said, he was invited by the Soviet Academy of Sciences to visit and lecture. Toward the end, in a surprise, he was taken outside Moscow to a military base surrounded by armed guards and barbed-wire fences.

“They had me visiting the various labs and discussing the problems,” including the neural impacts of microwaves, Mr. Frey recalled. “I got an inside look at their classified program.”

Moscow was so intrigued by the prospect of mind control that it adopted a special terminology for the overall class of envisioned arms, calling them psychophysical and psychotronic.

Soviet research on microwaves for “internal sound perception,” the Defense Intelligence Agency warned in 1976, showed great promise for “disrupting the behavior patterns of military or diplomatic personnel.”

Furtively, globally, the threat grew.

The National Security Agency gave Mark S. Zaid, a Washington lawyer who routinely gets security clearances to discuss classified matters, a statement on how a foreign power built a weapon “designed to bathe a target’s living quarters in microwaves, causing numerous physical effects, including a damaged nervous system.”

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Mr. Zaid said a N.S.A. client of his who traveled there watched in disbelief as his nervous system later unraveled, starting with control of his fingers.

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The high-pitched chirping that diplomats heard while working at the Consulate General of the United States in Guangzhou, China, might be explained by a phenomenon known as the Frey effect — radio-frequency hearing.CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

Washington, too, foresaw new kinds of arms.

In Albuquerque, N.M., Air Force scientists sought to beam comprehensible speech into the heads of adversaries. Their novel approach won a patent in 2002, and an update in 2003. Both were assigned to the Air Force secretary, helping limit the idea’s dissemination.

The lead inventor said the research team had “experimentally demonstrated” that the “signal is intelligible.” As for the invention’s uses, an Air Force disclosure form listed the first application as “Psychological Warfare.”

The Navy sought to paralyze. The Frey effect was to induce sounds powerful enough to cause painful discomfort and, if needed, leave targets unable to move. The weapon, the Navy noted, would have a “low probability of fatalities or permanent injuries.”

In a twist, the 2003 contract was awarded to microwave experts who had emigrated to the United States from Russia and Ukraine.

It is unknown if Washington deploys such arms. But the Pentagon built a related weapon known as the Active Denial System, hailing it in a video. It fires an invisible beam meant to deter mobs and attackers with fiery sensations.

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Russia, China and many European states are seen as having the know-how to make basic microwave weapons that can debilitate, sow noise or even kill. Advanced powers, experts say, might accomplish more nuanced aims such as beaming spoken words into people’s heads. Only intelligence agencies know which nations actually possess and use such unfamiliar arms.

The basic weapon might look like a satellite dish. In theory, such a device might be hand-held or mounted in a van, car, boat or helicopter. Microwave arms are seen as typically working over relatively short distances — across the length of a few rooms or blocks. High-powered ones might be able to fire beams across several football fields, or even for several miles.

The episode in Cuba

The Soviet collapse in 1991 cut Russia’s main ties to Cuba, a longtime ally just 90 miles from the United States. The shaky economy forced Moscow to stop providing Havana with large amounts of oil and other aid.

Vladimir Putin, as Russia’s president and prime minister, sought to recover the economic, political and strategic clout that the Soviets had lost. In December 2000, months after the start of his first presidential term, Mr. Putin flew to the island nation. It was the first visit by a Soviet or Russian leader since the Cold War.

He also sought to resurrect Soviet work on psychoactive arms. In 2012, he declared that Russia would pursue “new instruments for achieving political and strategic goals,” including psychophysical weapons.

In July 2014, Mr. Putin again visited Cuba. This time he brought a gift — the cancellation of some $30 billion in Cuban debt. The two nations signed a dozen accords.

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A Russian spy ship, Viktor Leonov, docked in Havana on the eve of the beginning of reconciliation talks between Cuba and the United States in early 2015, and did so again in subsequent years. Moscow and Havana grew so close that in late 2016, the two nations signed a sweeping pact on defense and technology cooperation.

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Raul Castro, president of Cuba, with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, at a welcoming ceremony for Mr. Putin in Havana in 2014.CreditIsmael Francisco/Associated Press
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In Havana’s harbor, men fishing near the Russian warship, Viktor, Leonov, in 2015.CreditRamon Espinosa/Associated Press

As a candidate, Donald Trump faulted the Obama administration’snormalization policy as “a very weak agreement” and threatened to scrap it on reaching the White House. Weeks after he won the election, in late November 2016, the American embassy in Havana found itself battling a mysterious crisis.

Diplomats and their families recounted high-pitched sounds in homes and hotel rooms at times intense enough to incapacitate. Long-term, the symptoms included nausea, crushing headaches, fatigue, dizziness, sleep problems and hearing loss.

The State Department filed diplomatic protests, and the Cuban government denied involvement. In May, the F.B.I. opened an investigation and its agents began visiting Havana a half year after the incidents began. The last major one hit that summer, in August, giving the agents relatively little time to gather clues.

In September 2017, the Trump administration warned travelers away from Cuba and ordered home roughly half the diplomatic personnel.

Rex W. Tillerson, who was then the secretary of state, said the embassy’s staff had been targeted deliberately. But he refrained from blaming Cuba, and federal officials held out the possibility that a third party may have been responsible.

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In early October, President Trump expelled 15 Cuban diplomats, producing a chill between the nations. Administration critics said the White House was using the health issue as a pretext to end President Barack Obama’s reconciliation policy.

The day after the expulsions, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a closed, top secret hearing on the Cuba situation. Three State Department officials testified, as did an unnamed senior official of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The Hypothesis

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Beatrice A. Golomb, a medical doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, here in a beachside office, argues that microwave strikes can explain the diplomatic ills.CreditTara Pixley for The New York Times

Early this year, in January, the spooky impact of microwaves on the human brain never came up during an open Senate hearing on the Cuba crisis.

But in a scientific paper that same month, James C. Lin of the University of Illinois, a leading investigator of the Frey effect, described the diplomatic ills as plausibly arising from microwave beams. Dr. Lin is the editor-in-chief of Bio Electro Magnetics, a peer-reviewed journal that explores the effects of radio waves and electromagnetic fields on living things.

In his paper, he said high-intensity beams of microwaves could have caused the diplomats to experience not just loud noises but nausea, headaches and vertigo, as well as possible brain-tissue injury. The beams, he added, could be fired covertly, hitting “only the intended target.”

In February, ProPublica in a lengthy investigation mentioned that federal investigators were weighing the microwave theory. Separately, it told of an intriguing find. The wife of a member of the embassy staff, it reported, had looked outside her home after hearing the disturbing sounds and seen a van speeding away.

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A dish antenna could fit easily into a small van.

The medical team that studied the Cuba diplomats ascribed the symptoms in the March JAMA study to “an unknown energy source” that was highly directional. Some personnel, it noted, had covered their ears and heads but experienced no sound reduction. The team said the diplomats appeared to have developed signs of concussion without having received any blows to the head.

In May, reports emerged that American diplomats in China had suffered similar traumas. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the medical details of the two groups “very similar” and “entirely consistent” with one another. By late June, the State Department had evacuated at least 11 Americans from China.

To date, the most detailed medical case for microwave strikes has been made by Beatrice A. Golomb, a medical doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego. In a forthcoming paper to be published in October in Neural Computation, a peer-reviewed journal of the MIT Press, she lays out potential medical evidence for Cuban microwave strikes.

She compared the symptoms of the diplomats in Cuba to those reported for individuals said to be suffering from radio-frequency sickness. The health responses of the two groups, Dr. Golomb wrote, “conform closely.”

In closing, she argued that “numerous highly specific features” of the diplomatic incidents “fit the hypothesis” of a microwave attack, including the Frey-type production of disturbing sounds.

Scientists still disagree over what hit the diplomats. Last month, JAMA ran four letters critical of the March study, some faulting the report for ruling out mass hysteria.

But Mr. Zaid, the Washington lawyer, who represents eight of the diplomats and family members, said microwave attacks may have injured his clients.

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“It’s sort of naïve to think this just started now,” he said. Globally, he added, covert strikes with the potent beams appear to have been going on for decades.

Francisco Palmieri, a State Department official, was asked during the open Senate hearing if “attacks against U.S. personnel in Cuba” had been raised with Moscow.

“That is a very good question,” Mr. Palmieri replied. But addressing it, he added, would require “a classified setting.”

For his part, Mr. Frey says he doubts the case will be solved anytime soon. The novelty of the crisis, its sporadic nature and the foreign setting made it hard for federal investigators to gather clues and draw conclusions, he said, much less file charges.

“Based on what I know,” he remarked, “it will remain a mystery.”

(AP) US to Americans: Stay away from Cuba after health ‘attacks’

(AP) The United States delivered an ominous warning to Americans on Friday to stay away from Cuba and ordered home more than half the U.S. diplomatic corps, acknowledging neither the Cubans nor America’s FBI can figure out who or what is responsible for months of mysterious health ailments.

No longer tiptoeing around the issue, the Trump administration shifted to calling the episodes “attacks” rather than “incidents.”

The U.S. actions are sure to rattle already delicate ties between the longtime adversaries who only recently began putting their hostility behind them. The U.S. Embassy in Cuba will lose roughly 60 percent of its American staff and will stop processing visas for prospective Cuban travelers to the United States indefinitely, officials said. Roughly 50 Americans had been working at the embassy.

President Donald Trump said that in Cuba “they did some very bad things” that harmed U.S. diplomats, but he didn’t say who he might mean by “they.”

Though officials initially suspected some futuristic “sonic attack,” the picture is muddy. The FBI and other agencies that searched homes and hotels where incidents occurred found no devices.

The State Department is recalling 60 percent of the staff at the U.S. embassy in Havana after serious medical issues developed in embassy personnel and family members. (Sept. 29)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who reviewed options for a response with Trump, said, “Until the government of Cuba can ensure the safety of our diplomats in Cuba, our embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel in order to minimize the number of diplomats at risk of exposure to harm.”

In Friday’s travel warning, the State Department confirmed earlier reporting by The Associated Press that U.S. personnel first encountered unexplained physical effects in Cuban hotels. While American tourists aren’t known to have been hurt, the agency said they could be exposed if they travel to the island — a pronouncement that could hit a critical component of Cuba’s economy that has expanded in recent years as the U.S. has relaxed restrictions.

At least 21 diplomats and family members have been affected. The department said symptoms include hearing loss, dizziness, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues and difficulty sleeping. Until Friday, the U.S. had generally referred to “incidents.” Tillerson’s statement ended that practice, mentioning “attacks” seven times; the travel alert used the word five times.

Still, the administration has pointedly not blamed Cuba for perpetrating the attacks, and officials have spent weeks weighing how to minimize the risk for Americans in Cuba without unnecessarily harming relations or falling into an adversary’s trap.

If the attacks have been committed by an outside power such as Russia or Venezuela to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Cuba, as some investigators have theorized, a U.S. pullout would end up rewarding the aggressor. On the other hand, officials have struggled with the moral dimensions of keeping diplomats in a place where the U.S. government cannot guarantee their safety.

The administration considered expelling Cuban diplomats from the U.S., officials said, but for now no such action has been ordered. That incensed several lawmakers who had urged the administration to kick out all of Cuban’s envoys.

“It’s an insult,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a vocal critic of Cuba’s government, in an interview. “The Cuban regime succeeded in forcing Americans to downscale a number of personnel in Cuba, yet it appears they’re going to basically keep all the people they want in America to travel freely and spread misinformation.”

The U.S. travel warning said, “Because our personnel’s safety is at risk, and we are unable to identify the source of the attacks, we believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk and warn them not to travel to Cuba.”

Canada, which also has reported diplomats with unexplained health problems, said it had no plans to change its diplomatic posture in Cuba.

The U.S. moves deliver a significant setback to the delicate reconciliation between America and Cuba, countries that endured a half-century estrangement despite only 90 miles of separation. In 2015, President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro restored diplomatic ties, embassies were re-opened and travel and commerce restrictions were eased. Trump has reversed some changes but has broadly left the rapprochement in place.

After considering options that ranged all the way to a full embassy shutdown, Tillerson made the decision to reduce all nonessential personnel and all family members. Also included in the recall is Scott Hamilton, currently the highest-ranked diplomat at the mission. Staffing at the embassy in Havana was already lower than usual due to recent hurricanes that whipped through Cuba.

Cubans seeking visas to enter the U.S. may be able to apply through embassies in nearby countries, officials said. The U.S. will stop sending official delegations to Cuba, though diplomatic discussions will continue in Washington.

The United States notified Cuba early Friday via its embassy in Washington.

Cuba blasted the American move as “hasty” and lamented that it was being taken without conclusive investigation results. Still, Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s top diplomat for U.S. affairs, said her government was willing to continue cooperation with Washington “to fully clarify these incidents.” Her government took the rare step of the inviting the FBI to the island after being presented with the allegations earlier this year.

To medical investigators’ dismay, symptoms have varied widely. In addition to hearing loss and concussions, some people have experienced nausea, headaches and ear-ringing. The Associated Press has reported some now suffer from problems with concentration and common word recall.

Some U.S. diplomats reported hearing loud noises or feeling vibrations when the incidents occurred, but others heard and felt nothing yet reported symptoms later. In some cases, the effects were narrowly confined, with victims able to walk “in” and “out” of blaring noises audible in only certain rooms or parts of rooms, the AP has reported

Though the incidents stopped for a time, they recurred as recently as late August.

(JapanTimes) U.S. halves diplomatic staff in Cuba following sonic ‘attacks’ in Cuba, warns Americans away

(JapanTimesThe United States delivered an ominous warning to Americans on Friday to stay away from Cuba and ordered home more than half of the U.S. diplomatic corps, acknowledging that neither the Cubans nor the FBI can figure out who or what is responsible for months of mysterious health ailments.

No longer tiptoeing around the issue, the Trump administration shifted to calling the episodes “attacks” rather than “incidents.”

To medical investigators’ dismay, symptoms have varied widely. In addition to hearing loss and concussions, some people have experienced nausea, headaches and ear-ringing. The Associated Press has reported that some now suffer from problems with concentration and recall of common words.

Some U.S. diplomats reported hearing loud noises or feeling vibrations when the incidents occurred, but others heard and felt nothing yet reported symptoms later. In some cases, the effects were narrowly confined, with victims able to walk “in” and “out” of blaring noises audible in only certain rooms or parts of rooms, the AP has reported

Though the incidents stopped for a time, they recurred as recently as late August.

The U.S. actions are sure to rattle the delicate ties between the longtime adversaries, which only recently began putting their hostility behind them.

The U.S. Embassy in Cuba will lose roughly 60 percent of its American staff and will stop processing visas for prospective Cuban travelers to the United States indefinitely, officials said. Roughly 50 Americans had been working at the embassy.

President Donald Trump said that “they did some very bad things” that harmed U.S. diplomats in Cuba, but he didn’t say who he might mean by “they.”

Though officials initially suspected some futuristic “sonic attack,” the picture is muddy. The FBI and other agencies that searched homes and hotels where incidents occurred found no devices.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who reviewed options for a response with Trump, said, “Until the government of Cuba can ensure the safety of our diplomats in Cuba, our embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel in order to minimize the number of diplomats at risk of exposure to harm.”

In Friday’s travel warning, the State Department confirmed reporting by The Associated Press that U.S. personnel first encountered unexplained physical effects in Cuban hotels. While American tourists aren’t known to have been hurt, the agency said they could be exposed if they travel to the island — a pronouncement that could hit a critical component of Cuba’s economy that has expanded in recent years as the U.S. has relaxed restrictions.

At least 21 diplomats and family members have been affected. The department said symptoms include hearing loss, dizziness, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues and difficulty sleeping.

Until Friday, the U.S. had generally referred to “incidents.” Tillerson’s statement ended that practice, mentioning “attacks” seven times; the travel alert used the word five times.

Still, the administration has pointedly not blamed Cuba for perpetrating the attacks, and officials have spent weeks weighing how to minimize the risk for Americans in Cuba without unnecessarily harming relations or falling into an adversary’s trap.

If the attacks have been committed by an outside power such as Russia or Venezuela to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Cuba, as some investigators have theorized, a U.S. pullout would end up rewarding the aggressor.

On the other hand, officials have struggled with the moral dimensions of keeping diplomats in a place where the U.S. government cannot guarantee their safety.

The administration considered expelling Cuban diplomats from the U.S., officials said, but for now no such action has been ordered.

That incensed several lawmakers who had urged the administration to kick out all of Cuban’s envoys.

“It’s an insult,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a vocal critic of Cuba’s government, in an interview. “The Cuban regime succeeded in forcing Americans to downscale a number of personnel in Cuba, yet it appears they’re going to basically keep all the people they want in America to travel freely and spread misinformation.”

The U.S. travel warning said, “Because our personnel’s safety is at risk, and we are unable to identify the source of the attacks, we believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk and warn them not to travel to Cuba.”

Canada, which also has reported diplomats with unexplained health problems, said it had no plans to change its diplomatic posture in Cuba.

The U.S. moves deliver a significant setback to the delicate reconciliation between America and Cuba, neighbors that endured a half-century estrangement. In 2015, President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro restored diplomatic ties, embassies were re-opened and travel and commerce restrictions were eased. Trump has reversed some changes but has broadly left the rapprochement in place.

After considering options that ranged all the way to a full embassy shutdown, Tillerson made the decision to reduce all nonessential personnel and all family members. Also included in the recall is Scott Hamilton, currently the highest-ranked diplomat at the mission. Staffing at the embassy in Havana was already lower than usual due to recent hurricanes that whipped through Cuba.

Cubans seeking visas to enter the U.S. may be able to apply through embassies in nearby countries, officials said. The U.S. will stop sending official delegations to Cuba, though diplomatic discussions will continue in Washington.

The United States notified Cuba early Friday via its embassy in Washington.

Cuba blasted the American move as “hasty” and lamented that it was being taken without conclusive investigation results. Still, Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s top diplomat for U.S. affairs, said her government was willing to continue cooperation with Washington “to fully clarify these incidents.” Her government took the rare step of the inviting the FBI to the island after being presented with the allegations earlier this year.

(GUA) How could the ‘sonic attack’ on US diplomats in Cuba have been carried out?

(GUA) If an acoustic weapon is responsible for the ‘attacks’ on US diplomats it is likely to be ultrasonic, but chemical causes must first be ruled out, say experts.

The US State Department claims that at least 16 individuals have been affected by unexplained health problems at their Havana embassy.
 The US State Department claims that at least 16 individuals have been affected by unexplained health problems at their Havana embassy. Photograph: Alejandro Ernesto/EPA

The mysterious “sonic attack” on US diplomats based in Cuba raises questions about what form an acoustic weapon might have taken and the prevalence of such devices in the military.

The US State Department claims that the “attacks” started in autumn 2016 and ended in April this year and had affected at least 16 individuals. Officials said that the symptoms, including hearing loss, headaches and loss of balance, appeared to be the result of sophisticated devices operating outside the range of audible sound. No device nor any perpetrator has been discovered, however.

A sonic weapon operating outside the human hearing range implies one emitting either very low (infrasound) or high (ultrasound) frequencies. In the second world war, the German military considered deploying an infrasound device, called the Wirbelwind Kanone (Whirlwind Cannon), aimed at knocking enemy bombers out of the sky using a vortex of sound. Targeted at people, infrasound can resonate with the stomach cavity, causing people to suddenly feel anxious or nauseated.

However, low frequencies are difficult to target and the symptoms in the Cuban case do not appear consistent with infrasound attacks.

Robin Cleveland, a professor of engineering science at the University of Oxford, said: “What’s probably happening in the Cuba situation, is ultrasonic – higher frequencies above above 20 kHz.”

Tim Leighton, professor of ultrasonics and underwater acoustics at University of Southampton, agreed: “If you want to produce a tight beam of energy that you can point at someone, ultrasound is the one to go for.”

There is good evidence that hearing loss can result from longterm exposure to ultrasound, based on studies of people working in factories where ultrasound is used to weld plastic parts.

Cleveland said that building an ultrasound emitter would not be hard. “You can buy transducers on the internet that emit these frequencies,” he said. “Anybody with a bit of engineering background could put one together.”

A device the size of a kitchen matchbox could emit high enough amplitudes at close range to induce feelings of anxiety or difficulty concentrating.

However, putting together something powerful enough to affect hearing would be more challenging as it would require a large amplifier, may require a focused beam, and would need to be placed in the close vicinity of the target. High frequency sound does not travel well through barriers such as walls, curtains, or even human skin.

“If you want to put a lot of power into it so you could produce a beam that could go through windows, it starts to look more like a suitcase,” said Leighton. “In order to generate hearing loss at 50 metres away, you’d be looking at a car-sized device.”

Another ethical issue, specific to ultrasound weapons, is that they are difficult to target and tend to affect women and to a far greater degree children, more severely than middle-aged men.

US media reported this week that the medical records of some of the diplomats showed they had been diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury. However, scientists were sceptical about the potential for an ultrasonic device to be capable of causing permanent brain damage.

“That’s a little harder for me to believe,” said Cleveland. “The sound would have to enter the brain tissue itself, but if you’ve ever had an ultrasound scan you’ll know they put gel on. If there’s even a tiny bit of air between the sound and your body it doesn’t get through.”

One possibility is that this diagnosis is a result of to the range of symptoms experienced, which might include migraines, tinnitus, loss of balance and problems concentrating. However, these effects would normally be temporary.

Leighton, who has studied the military applications of acoustic technology, said he would like to see more “prosaic possibilities” such as drugs or poison ruled out before being persuaded of the sonic weapon theory.

(GUA) ‘Sonic attack’: Canadian diplomat in Cuba also suffered hearing damage

(GUA) One or more Canadians affected after suspected use of sound weapon against US personnel in Havana led to expulsion of Cuban diplomats from Washington.

Cuban flags in front of the US embassy in Havana
Canada helped broker talks between Cuba and the United States that led to restored diplomatic relations. Photograph: Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

At least one Canadian diplomat in Cuba has been treated for hearing loss following disclosures that a group of American diplomats in Havana suffered severe hearing loss that US officials believe was caused by an advanced sonic device.

Brianne Maxwell, Canadian government spokeswoman for global affairs, said officials “are aware of unusual symptoms affecting Canadian and US diplomatic personnel and their families in Havana. The government is actively working – including with US and Cuban authorities – to ascertain the cause.”

Maxwell added that officials did not have any reason to believe Canadian tourists and other visitors could be affected.

Canada helped broker talks between Cuba and the United States that led to restored diplomatic relations.

In the autumn of 2016 a series of US diplomats began suffering unexplained losses of hearing, according to officials with knowledge of the investigation into the case. Several of the diplomats were recent arrivals at the embassy, which reopened in 2015 as part of President Barack Obama’s re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Some of the US diplomats’ symptoms were so severe they were forced to cancel their tours early and return to the United States, officials said. After months of investigation US officials concluded that the diplomats had been attacked with an advanced sonic weapon that operated outside the range of audible sound and had been deployed either inside or outside their residences.

It was not immediately clear if the device was a weapon used in a deliberate attack, or had some other purpose.

The US officials weren’t authorised to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the US retaliated byexpelling two Cuban diplomats from their embassy in Washington on 23 May. She did not say how many US diplomats were affected or confirm they had suffered hearing loss, saying only that they had “a variety of physical symptoms”.

The Cuban government said in a lengthy statement late on Wednesday that “Cuba has never permitted, nor will permit, that Cuban territory be used for any action against accredited diplomatic officials or their families, with no exception”.

The statement from the Cuban foreign ministry said it had been informed on 17 February of the incidents and launched an “exhaustive, high-priority, urgent investigation at the behest of the highest level of the Cuban government”.

It said the decision to expel two Cuban diplomats was “unjustified and baseless.”

The ministry said it had created an expert committee to analyse the incidents and had reinforced security around the US embassy and US diplomatic residences.

“Cuba is universally considered a safe destination for visitors and foreign diplomats, including US citizens,” the statement said.

US officials told the Associated Press that about five diplomats, several with spouses, had been affected and that no children had been involved. The FBI and Diplomatic Security Service are investigating.

Cuba employs a state security apparatus that keeps many people under surveillance and US diplomats are among the most closely monitored people on the island. Like virtually all foreign diplomats in Cuba, the victims of the incidents lived in housing owned and maintained by the Cuban government.

However, officials familiar with the probe said investigators were looking into the possibilities that the incidents were carried out by a third country such as Russia, possibly operating without the knowledge of Cuba’s formal chain of command.

Nauert said investigators did not yet have a definitive explanation for the incidents but stressed they take them “very seriously,” as shown by the Cuban diplomats’ expulsions.

(WP) Hearing loss of US diplomats in Cuba blamed on covert device

(WP)

FILE – In this july 20, 2015 file photo, a member of the Cuban honor guard stands next to a new plaque at the front door of the newly reopened Cuban embassy in Washington. The State Department has expelled two diplomats from Cuba’s Embassy in Washington following a series of unexplained incidents in Cuba that left U.S. officials there with physical symptoms.(Andrew Harnik, File, Pool/Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — The two-year-old U.S. diplomatic relationship with Cuba was roiled Wednesday by what U.S. officials say was a string of bizarre incidents that left a group of American diplomats in Havana with severe hearing loss attributed to a covert sonic device.

In the fall of 2016, a series of U.S. diplomats began suffering unexplained losses of hearing, according to officials with knowledge of the investigation into the case. Several of the diplomats were recent arrivals at the embassy, which reopened in 2015 as part of former President Barack Obama’s reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Some of the diplomats’ symptoms were so severe that they were forced to cancel their tours early and return to the United States, officials said. After months of investigation, U.S. officials concluded that the diplomats had been exposed to an advanced device that operated outside the range of audible sound and had been deployed either inside or outside their residences. It was not immediately clear if the device was a weapon used in a deliberate attack, or had some other purpose.

The U.S. officials weren’t authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. retaliated by expelling two Cuban diplomats from their embassy in Washington on May 23. She did not say how many U.S. diplomats were affected or confirm they had suffered hearing loss, saying only that they had “a variety of physical symptoms.”

The Cuban government said in a lengthy statement late Wednesday that “Cuba has never permitted, nor will permit, that Cuban territory be used for any action against accredited diplomatic officials or their families, with no exception.”

The statement from the Cuban Foreign Ministry said it had been informed of the incidents on Feb. 17 and had launched an “exhaustive, high-priority, urgent investigation at the behest of the highest level of the Cuban government.”

It said the decision to expel two Cuban diplomats was “unjustified and baseless.”

The ministry said it had created an expert committee to analyze the incidents and had reinforced security around the U.S. embassy and U.S. diplomatic residences.

“Cuba is universally considered a safe destination for visitors and foreign diplomats, including U.S. citizens,” the statement said.

U.S. officials told The Associated Press that about five diplomats, several with spouses, had been affected and that no children had been involved. The FBI and Diplomatic Security Service are investigating.

Cuba employs a state security apparatus that keeps many people under surveillance and U.S. diplomats are among the most closely monitored people on the island. Like virtually all foreign diplomats in Cuba, the victims of the incidents lived in housing owned and maintained by the Cuban government.

However, officials familiar with the probe said investigators were looking into the possibilities that the incidents were carried out by a third country such as Russia, possibly operating without the knowledge of Cuba’s formal chain of command.

Nauert said investigators did not yet have a definitive explanation for the incidents but stressed they take them “very seriously,” as shown by the Cuban diplomats’ expulsions.

“We requested their departure as a reciprocal measure since some U.S. personnel’s assignments in Havana had to be curtailed due to these incidents,” she said. “Under the Vienna Convention, Cuba has an obligation to take measures to protect diplomats.”

U.S. diplomats in Cuba said they suffered occasional harassment for years after the restoration of limited ties with the communist government in the 1970s, harassment reciprocated by U.S. agents against Cuban diplomats in Washington. The use of sonic devices to intentionally harm diplomats would be unprecedented.

(BBC) Cuba signs deal for faster internet access to Google content

(BBC)

Cubans use a public Wi-Fi spot in Havana, 26 Nov 16Image copyrightAP
Image captionMost Cubans can only access the internet from public wi-fi hotspots

Cuba’s state-run telecommunications company Etecsa has signed a deal with Google that will enable faster access to content from the American company.

Under the deal, the technology giant will install servers in Cuba to improve connectivity speeds to Google services, including Gmail and YouTube.

Google and Etecsa have reached their agreement in the final weeks of Barack Obama’s presidency.

It is not clear whether his successor will change US policies towards Cuba.

President Obama restored relations with Cuba earlier this year, after more than five decades of hostility between the two former Cold War rivals.

Donald Trump has made arguments both for and against improved ties with the communist-run nation since being elected last month.

But there is some uncertainty on the island as to what his definitive policy will be, says the BBC’s Will Grant in Havana.

Eric Schmidt, chairman of Alphabet Inc. stands in front of a picture of former Cuba's President Fidel Castro before signing documents in HavanaImage copyrightREUTERS
Image captionEric Schmidt signed the agreement in Havana on behalf of Google

Even though most Cubans are likely to see the deal with Google as a step forward, it will do little to change the overall online accessibility in the country.

Cuba still has one of the lowest online connectivity rates in the world.

The majority of the population is not allowed access to the internet from home and must rely, instead, on expensive wi-fi points to get online.

“This deal allows Etecsa to use our technology to reduce latency by caching some of our most popular high bandwidth content like YouTube videos at a local level,” said Google in a statement.

The agreement was signed in Havana by Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google parent company Alphabet Inc, and ETECSA president Mayra Arevich Marin.

(Sábado) Revista Forbes avalia herança de Fidel Castro em 900 milhões

(Sábado)

A revista americana Forbes avaliou esta sexta-feira, 2 de Dezembro, a fortuna de Fidel Castro em quase 900 milhões de euros. Já numa entrevista publicada pela SÁBADO, o antigo guarda-costas do ditador tinha revelado, a propósito da publicação do seu livro La Vie Cachée de Fidel Castro (A vida oculta de Fidel Castro), que “possuía mais de 20 casas, tinha à disposição um iate e passava o Verão numa ilha secreta com heliporto, tartarugas e golfinhos”.

A herança do antigo dirigente de Cuba, que se assumia como marxista-leninista, será maior do que a de muitos reis e, de acordo com a Forbes terá aumentado substancialmente nos últimos anos. Em 2003 a revista atribuía-lhe uma fortuna de 110 milhões de dólares, mas em 2012, já tinha sido multiplicada por oito, devido a intervenções em empresas do Estado, o que fazia dele um homem mais rico do que a rainha de Inglaterra.

Cuba negou sempre os valores adiantados pela Forbes e Fidel chegou a desafiar: “Provem-no (…) Se eles provarem que tenho no exterior uma conta de 900 milhões, de um milhão, de 500 mil, de 100 mil, de 10 mil, de um dólar, eu renuncio do cargo e das funções que desempenho”.

A Forbes justifica a fortuna acumulada por Castro com mais-valias provenientes de empresas estatais, como a Cimex, que tinha como principal negócio o transporte marítimo e a Medicuba, ligada ao ministério da Saúde e a produtos médicos.

Num trabalho intitulado Na vida extravagante de Fidel Castro, a Forbes diz que foi para a propriedade Punto Cero, com 30 hectares, situada num condomínio fechado de luxo com campo de golfe, que o ex-governante se retirou quando deixou de liderar Cuba, embora sempre tenha dito que apenas possuía uma cabana de pescador.

Além dessa casa, o ditador terá outras três mansões, diz aForbes, uma delas tem até uma marina privada. Um estilo de vida que se associa ao capitalismo e não ao socialismo que defendia.

Longe da imagem de sacrifício que apregoava publicamente, o homem que gostava de ser visto como o pai da revolução cubana, levava, de acordo com o que o seu antigo guarda-costas, Juán Reinaldo Sánchez, disse à SÁBADO, uma vida luxuosa. Viajava para a ilha privada onde passava férias, Cayo Piedra, em iate privado; em sua casa trabalhavam “três cozinheiros e as refeições eram à la carte, feitas em função do que cada membro da família desejava comer”.

+++ (BBG) Castro’s Death Will Shrink Cuba Back Down to Size: Mac Margolis

(Bloomberg) — For a man who had been reported dead so many times before, and whose vision of the world had shrunk long ago to the size of a t-shirt, Fidel Castro triggered a remarkable commotion when he died this weekend at age 90. Nowhere were the paeans more heartfelt than in Latin America. “,” wrote Ecuador’s President and fast Cuban ally Rafael Correa. Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro declared three days of public morning. “Dreamers and militant and progressives, all who dreamed of a less unequal world, we all woke up saddened on Saturday,” wrote former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

Perhaps this was only to be expected. Revolutionary Cuba’s success — in thwarting Washington, inspiring generations of political rebels, raising literacy and public health — won the island nation a lasting aura of strength and respect in latitudes accustomed to neither. I felt the allure in college when the coolest classmates spent their spring break not in Cancun or in Aspen, but in Cuba, cutting sugar cane for the Venceremos Brigade. Confined to chilly New England, and later as a reporter based in Brazil, I contented myself with tales about Fidel and Ernesto Che Guevara and their Davidic efforts to face down the hemispheric hegemon. No matter that the Cuban economy was already perilously dependent on another world superpower or that Fidel’s supremacy was built on stifling dissent, free assembly and speech and other “bourgeois” luxuries. Back then you chose your side — “everyone in the world has to be communist or anti-communist.” Thus did Castro’s champions lecture African American poet LeRoi Jones, as Jones wrote in his essay on the revolution’s fevered aftermath, Cuba Libre.

What’s harder to explain is how the reverence has endured. From Chile to Costa Rica, Latin Americans have made their choice. With some flagrant exceptions — autocratic Venezuela, Nicaragua — never has the region been so democratic. The vast majority of people in the 34 nations of Central and South America and the Caribbean choose their leaders in open elections, say what’s on their minds, and buy and sell things in market economies. While national institutions are frail and corruption flourishes, the Americas have not followed Castro’s example.

It’s not that Latin leaders were blind to the excesses of Castro’s Cuba. In his memoir “The Accidental President of Brazil,” former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso tells writer Brian Winter of the pasting Fidel received in a closed door meeting of Iberian and Latin American leaders in 1999. “Damn it, Fidel! What are you going to do about this lousy, piece-of-shit island of yours?” one summit leader demanded.

And yet such reproach hardly ever was made public, as if Fidel was a damaged but cherished uncle. “Even today it’s difficult — at least in Latin America — for someone who identifies with the left to publicly condemn Cuba’s political regime,” writes Argentine political scientist Claudia Hilb in “Silence, Cuba,” her book on how Latin American politicians, and the left in particular, clammed up on Cuba’s dysfunctions. “I too, when choosing my words, struggle to soften my affirmations,” she writes.

Hilb attributed that diffidence to a political blind spot: the conceit that Castro’s excesses were just unfortunate byproducts of an otherwise beneficent model of government when in fact tyranny was the foundation of the Cuban revolution.

If Castro got a pass from the left, he had help. From attempted assassination by exploding cigar to the half-century economic embargo, Washington’s permanent offensive against the Cuban leader only played to Fidel’s hand, camouflaging the disasters of the command economy and ennobling the dictator’s every move against dissidents.

The Cuba conceit thrives. It’s telling that the most expansive tributes to Castro came from the region’s struggling left, whose leaders — Rousseff in Brazil, Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner — either have been replaced by market-friendly conservatives or cling to office (Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia) against rising dissent, failing economies, or political improbity. Honors to former Brazilian political legend Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who extolled Castro as “the greatest of all Latin Americans,” and is set to stand trial on multiple corruption charges.

One of Fidel’s neatest tricks was to have helped Cuba veer before it crashed. He stepped aside when he was ailing, and let his brother Raul change course. Even as allies in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia railed against Yanqui meddlers, the younger Castro warmly welcomed a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama and helped nudge the guerrillas it once urged into battle to make peace with the Colombian government.

Cuba’s rebranding may have begun, but Latin America’s Cuba distraction lingers. I can still hear the admonishments of those who counseled me not to move to Brazil. After all, the story in Latin America back then was not an accident-prone and chronically underachieving capitalist democracy, but the Central American Cold War, which thanks to Fidel Castro’s outsize presence was enjoying a robust afterlife.

It didn’t matter that Cuba was an island autocracy with the same population as Sao Paulo and less than half the Brazilian metropolis’s gross domestic product. “Cuba is the black hole in the Americas,” Eric Farnsworth, of the Council of the Americas once told me. “It sucks up all the attention in the hemisphere.” One of the opportunities in Fidel Castro’s passing could be to help restore a much needed sense of proportion to hemispheric affairs. That’s a resizing I welcome.

(EXP) A imagem do inédito encontro entre Marcelo e Fidel

(EXP) De acordo com o “Granma” – jornal oficial do Comité Central do Partido Comunista de Cuba – tratou-se de um “encontro amigável” entre Presidente da República e o histórico líder cubano.

GRANMA

Num dia histórico, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa reuniu-se esta quarta-feira com Fidel Castro em Havana. O antigo líder cubano recebeu o chefe de Estado português, naquela que é a primeira visita oficial de um Presidente da República luso a Cuba.

De acordo com o “Granma” – jornal oficial do Comité Central do Partido Comunista de Cuba – tratou-se de um “encontro amigável” entre os dois políticos, onde foram abordados diversos assuntos internacionais, nomeadamente as relações bilaterais entre os dois países.

Marcelo voltou a reiterar a oposição de Portugal ao embargo norte-americano a Cuba, após uma votação efetuada esta quarta-feira na sede da ONU que contou pela primeira vez com a abstenção dos Estados Unidos. “É um dia histórico, para nós, também. É um dia histórico”, declarou o Presidente da República.

Por seu turno, Fidel Castro teve oportunidade para agradecer a posição de Portugal relativamente a Cuba, depois de o seu irmão e atual Presidente cubano Raul Castro ter recebido também Marcelo.

+++ (FT) Obama vows to bury the cold war in Cuba

(FT) US president urges young Cubans to ‘build something new’ in historic speech in Havana.

Barack Obama said his historic trip to Havana would “bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas” and called on the young people of Cuba to “build something new”.

Speaking in a televised address, Mr Obama told the 84-year-old Cuban leader Raúl Castro, who was watching from a balcony of the Gran Teatro in central Havana, that he “need not fear the different voices of the Cuban people”.

“Many suggested that I come here and ask the people of Cuba to tear something down,” he said, in a reference to Ronald Reagan’s famous Cold War call in Berlin to “tear down this wall”.

“But I’m appealing to the young people of Cuba who will lift something up, build something new.” A generational change was taking place in the country, he said.

The speech was the centre-point of Mr Obama’s three-day visit to Havana — the first by an American president in 88 years — which was designed to accelerate his efforts to normalise relations to Cuba. In front of an audience of 1,000 people from both countries, Mr Obama was warmly received, although his sharper comments about the country’s political system were applauded by only the large American delegation.

The divide over political values was evident on Monday at an often awkward press conference when Mr Castro denied that there were any political prisoners in Cuba in response to a question from an American reporter.

By speaking directly to the Cuban people, the administration hopes the president can help pry open some aspects of the Cuban political and economic systems, although Mr Obama was also very careful in his speech to acknowledge legitimate criticisms about the US.

He said that Mr Castro had long drawn attention to economic inequality and racial discrimination in the US. “That’s just a sample. He has a much longer list,” Mr Obama joked. But he said that “I welcome this open debate” and admitted “we do have too much money in American politics”.

Yet pointing to American strengths, he added that in the current election “you had two Cuban Americans in the Republican party running against the legacy of a black man who was president while arguing that they’re the best person to beat the Democratic nominee, who will either be a woman or a democratic socialist.”

The United States and Cuba are like two brothers who’ve been estranged for many years, even as we share the same blood.

Barack Obama, US president

As well as the speech, Mr Obama was to meet on Tuesday with a group of activists and dissidents and to attend a baseball game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays.

Mr Obama emphasised the two countries’ common heritage, “like two brothers that have been estranged for many years, even as we share the same blood”. He added: “We both live in a new world, colonised by Europeans.”

Appealing for reconciliation between Cubans in both countries, he said Cuban exiles in the US carry a “memory of a painful and sometimes violent separation”.

“They love Cuba and a part of them still consider this their true home,” he went on. “This is not just about politics. This is about family.”

“This is about the memory of a home that was lost, the desire to rebuild a broken bond, the hope for a better future, the hope for return and reconciliation,” he said.

Mr Obama’s emotional reference to émigré Cubans drew tears from many watchers in Miami.

“It was a wonderful speech, he hit the ball out of the park,” said Olga Jiminez, an 80-year old Cuban-American.

But critics poured scorn on the visit. “Obama says Raúl Castro seeks change in Cuba. What a fantasy!” tweeted Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Others, such as Miami Herald columnist Dan Le Batard, a Cuban American, wrote with more nuance about his family’s emotional distaste at the visit.

“The embargo didn’t work. I get it. ….[But] you’ll forgive us if we aren’t much in the mood to play ball with a dictator who still has blood on his hands, no matter how much ESPN and Obama … dress it up,” he wrote.

Polls show overall Cuban-American support for the embargo has fallen steadily, from 48 per cent in 2014 from 87 per cent in 1991. Indeed, as a sign of the changing times, accompanying Mr Obama on his trip are a group of influential Cuban-American businessmen, including Carlos Gutierrez, former commerce secretary to George W Bush, who for years opposed rapprochement but now actively support it.gopyt

+++ (BBG) Obama, Castro Split on Human Rights in Historic Remarks

(BBG) The U.S. and Cuban presidents on Monday expressed hope for the improving relationship between their nations even as they underscored deep differences over human rights and governance, in an extraordinary news conference punctuated by Raul Castro’s critique of the American social safety net and an awkward miscue on a closing handshake.

“After more than five very difficult decades, the relationship between our governments will not be transformed overnight,” President Barack Obama said in the news conference, initially described as a statements-only event before Obama prevailed on the Cuban leader to take questions from reporters. “Cuba is sovereign and rightly has great pride, and the future of Cuba will be decided by Cubans and not by anybody else. The United States will continue to speak up on behalf of democracy.”

Castro, questioned about his government’s human-rights policies and regular arrests of dissidents, was defiant. “Give me a list of the political prisoners and I will release them immediately,” he told a U.S. reporter who challenged him on the issue.

The meeting in Havana did not resolve major differences between the two countries, antagonists to one another for more than 60 years, and it won’t immediately result in economic breakthroughs for the retinue of U.S. corporate executives accompanying Obama. Nor will it still criticism from Republicans and some Democrats that the U.S. president is meeting with the Cuban dictator while his government continues to imprison political opponents.

Castro said that Cuba meets more indicators of human rights than many other countries, and turned the tables on the U.S., criticizing the country’s health and education systems as human rights abuses.

“We find it inconceivable that a government does not defend and ensure the right to health care, education, social security, food provision and development, equal pay and the rights of children,” Castro said through a translator. “We oppose political manipulation and double standards in the approach to human rights.”

Awkward Gesture

As the news conference concluded, Obama appeared to go in for a handshake or a pat on the back, while Castro appeared to try to lift the U.S. president’s arm. Instead, Obama maneuvered so that Castro got his wrist, and Obama let his hand go limp. It made for an awkward photo, while allowing Obama to avoid an image of his hand and Castro’s clasped together over their heads. The men later shook hands before parting ways.

Castro declined to say whether he preferred Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in November if they should become the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees, noting dryly that he can’t vote in U.S. elections.

The U.S. and Cuba will sign an agreement Monday on agricultural cooperation, and doctors from the two countries plan to collaborate on combating the Zika virus and cancer, the two leaders said. Castro, though, said that the U.S. must drop its trade embargo against the island and return the Guantanamo Bay naval base.

“This cooperation is beneficial not only for Cuba and the United States, but also for our hemisphere at large,” Castro said, calling Obama’s opening to the island nation “positive but insufficient.”

Profound Differences

“There are profound differences between our countries that will not go away,” Castro said.

Obama has argued that U.S. policy toward Cuba for the last half century has failed, and only American engagement with the island and its government can change its trajectory. Obama expressed no offense at Castro’s criticism of U.S. policies.

“We welcome that constructive dialogue as well because we believe that when we share our deepest beliefs and ideas with an attitude of mutual respect that we can both learn and make the lives of our people better,” Obama said.

State Visit

The day’s events show the U.S. and international public the full pageantry of a state visit. Obama on Monday laid a wreath at Havana’s memorial to Jose Marti, a 19th century Cuban revolutionary, before attending a formal welcome ceremony and meeting with Castro at the Palace of the Revolution. Castro will host a state dinner for Obama and the first lady, Michelle, in the evening.

Obama became the first U.S. president to set foot on Cuban soil in 88 years shortly after Air Force One touched down on Sunday at Jose Marti International Airport at about 4:19 p.m. He was greeted by Cuba’s minister of foreign affairs and its U.S. ambassador. A short time later, a crowd gathered under a steady rain greeted the president, his wife and their daughters, Malia and Sasha, with shouts of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” as they arrived at the Plaza de Arms in Old Havana to walk through the city’s colonial center, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Obama said he and his family were touched by the greeting.

The Obamas proceeded to Havana’s cathedral, where the president met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, a former 1960s labor-camp inmate who played a role in secret negotiations preceding the opening of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. They later dined at the San Cristobal restaurant, drawing crowds of onlookers as the presidential motorcade made its way through the narrow and crowded streets. Over two days, Obama will talk with dissidents and entrepreneurs. Offering a taste to Cubans of what a more open relationship could mean, Obama also plans to attend an exhibition baseball game on Tuesday between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.

Business Opportunities

The president is leading a U.S. delegation that includes lawmakers from both parties, corporate executives eyeing new commercial ties with and within Cuba, and prominent Cuban Americans. Among them is Marriott International Inc. Chief Executive Arne Sorenson; Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox Corp.; Brian Chesky, president and founder of Airbnb Inc.; and Daniel Schulman, CEO of PayPal Holdings Inc., according to a list released by the White House.

In a concrete sign of the business opportunities emerging as a result of the thaw, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc. announced a day before Obama’s arrival that it had agreed to convert three hotels in Cuba into Starwood-brand properties. Airbnb announced on Sunday that the Treasury Department had approved its plan to offer accommodations in Cuba for non-U.S. travelers. Marriott also announced on Sunday that Treasury had approved its application to do business in Cuba.

After the meeting with Castro, Obama attended an event for Cuban and U.S. entrepreneurs, where Chesky of Airbnb told the president that a Cuban homeowner using his service began to cry after he told her she could now book non-U.S. travelers. The woman said she would finally be able to pay her bills, Chesky said.

“If you can imagine what could be done with broadening Internet service here, I think Brian gives you an example,” Obama said. He also took questions from Cuban business people, including a barber and a graphic designer.

Even with little chance that Congress will lift the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba before he leaves office in January, Obama is betting that a rapprochement, symbolized by his visit, has now become irrevocable, no matter who succeeds him.

“It signals the beginning of a new era, more than anything that’s been done so far,” said Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who’s among the leading U.S. advocates of normalization and is part of the delegation in Cuba. “Any Republican administration would be hard-pressed to reverse really any of this. This all feeds on itself. These changes are going to be permanent and expanding.”

Along with Flake, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Senate Democratic leader, flew with Obama on Air Force One. He was was also accompanied by Rachel and Sharon Robinson, the widow and daughter of the late Major League Baseball player Jackie Robinson, whose Dodgers trained in Cuba.

The president’s visit is the latest step in an effort announced in December 2014 to restore relations with the Communist-run island. Though embraced by many Americans, the prospect of reconciliation with the government of Raul Castro has drawn sharp criticism from some Republicans, including presidential candidates Trump and Ted Cruz.

+++ V.V.I. (BBG) Obama Arrives in Havana to Cement Thaw in Cuba Relations

(BBG) President Barack Obama meets Monday with Cuban President Raul Castro to urge the Communist government to seize a historic opportunity for fuller ties between the two nations by acting to expand human rights and economic access.

The meeting in Havana won’t resolve major differences between the two countries, antagonists to one another for more than 60 years, and it won’t immediately result in economic breakthroughs for the retinue of U.S. corporate executive accompanying Obama. Nor will it still criticism from Republicans and some Democrats that the U.S. president is meeting with the Cuban dictator while his government continues to imprison political opponents.

But it will serve as punctuation for Obama’s argument that U.S. policy toward Cuba for the last half century has failed, and only American engagement with the island and its government can change its trajectory.

“Having a U.S. embassy means we’re more effectively able to advance our values,
our interests, and understand more effectively” the Cuban people’s concerns, Obama told staff of the embassy, re-opened last year, upon his arrival in Havana. “This is a historic visit and a historic opportunity.”

The day’s events will show the U.S. and international public the full pageantry of a state visit, with a formal welcome ceremony and meeting with Castro at the Palace of the Revolution and a state dinner in the evening.

Obama became the first U.S. president to set foot on Cuban soil in 88 years shortly after Air Force One touched down on Sunday at Jose Marti International Airport at about 4:19 p.m. He was greeted by Cuba’s minister of foreign affairs and its U.S. ambassador. A short time later, a crowd gathered under a steady rain greeted the president, first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, Malia and Sasha, with shouts of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” as they arrived at the Plaza de Arms in Old Havana to walk through the city’s colonial center, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Seeing Havana

The Obamas proceeded to Havana’s cathedral, where the president met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, a former 1960s labor-camp inmate who played a role in secret negotiations preceding the opening of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. They later dined at the San Cristobal restaurant, drawing crowds of onlookers as the presidential motorcade made its way through the narrow and crowded streets. Over two days, Obama will talk with dissidents and entrepreneurs. Offering a taste to Cubans of what a more open relationship could mean, Obama also plans to attend an exhibition baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.

On Monday, the business of the visit begins. The president is leading a U.S. delegation that includes lawmakers from both parties, corporate executives eyeing new commercial ties with and within Cuba, and prominent Cuban Americans. Among them is Marriott Chief Executive Arne Sorenson, Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox; Brian Chesky, president and founder of Airbnb; and Daniel Schulman, CEO of PayPal, according to a list released by the White House.

Doing Business

In a concrete sign of the business opportunities emerging as a result of the thaw, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc. announced a day before Obama’s arrival that it had agreed to convert three hotels in Cuba into Starwood-brand properties. Airbnb Inc. announced on Sunday that the Treasury Department had approved its plan to offer accommodations in Cuba for non-U.S. travelers. Marriott International Inc. also announced on Sunday that Treasury had approved its application to do business in Cuba.

Even with little chance that Congress will lift the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba before he leaves office in January, Obama is betting that a rapprochement, symbolized by his visit, has now become irrevocable, no matter who succeeds him.

“It signals the beginning of a new era, more than anything that’s been done so far,” said Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who’s among the leading U.S. advocates of normalization and is part of the delegation in Cuba. “Any Republican administration would be hard-pressed to reverse really any of this. This all feeds on itself. These changes are going to be permanent and expanding.”

Official Delegation

Along with Flake, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Senate Democratic leader, flew with Obama on Air Force One. He was was also accompanied by Rachel and Sharon Robinson, the widow and daughter of the late Major League Baseball player Jackie Robinson, whose Dodgers trained in Cuba.

The president’s visit is the latest step in an effort announced in December 2014 to restore relations with the Communist-run island. Though embraced by many Americans, the prospect of reconciliation with the government of Raul Castro has drawn sharp criticism from some Republicans, including presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

Uncertainty in Cuba

Among Cubans, interest in Obama’s visit is tempered by uncertainty over what might come next.

Yoel Oliver, 29, and Nayla Montano, 32, friends and partners in a small art stand at a seaside craft market, personify the mixed feelings on the prospects of the opening with the U.S. The stand, which sells paintings of Havana cityscapes, antique cars and musical scenes to European and Canadian tourists, is struggling, they said.

“To sell a painting is like winning the lottery,” said Montano, who said she’s never even had access to an Internet connection to use the hot-pink encased Samsung Android phone jutting out of her jeans pocket.

Montano expressed little optimism that the Obama visit is a sign of improving times. Isn’t the American president in his last year of office anyway, she asked. And what is to stop his successor from retreating?

Oliver, whose wrists show the scars of surgeries that have strengthened his hands to partly overcome disabling birth defects, counts himself among the optimists that the historic visit begins a path to better economic times.

“A lot of people hope, and a lot of people don’t think so,” Oliver said. “I am one of the people who hope so.”

Obama is making the connection between his Cuba policy and his aspirations for improved relations with the rest of Latin America explicit by flying from Cuba to Argentina. The last visit by a U.S. leader to Argentina, for a multination summit in 2005, ended with then-President George W. Bush rebuffed in trade talks by South American leaders and anti-U.S. protesters in the streets led by Argentine football legend Diego Maradona.

While the friction between the U.S. and Latin America has multiple sources, the isolation of Cuba is a common factor.

“The Latin Americans are really amazed by our enduring enmity to Castro,” said Jonathan Hansen, a Harvard University historian and specialist on Guantanamo, who is writing a biography about Fidel Castro. “Having a reciprocal, respectful recognition of Cuba as a country that’s struggling on its own terms, to treat them like they have a right to exist, is really important for Latin America.”

+++ V.I. (FT) Starwood Hotels signs landmark Cuba deal

(FT) First time in nearly 60 years US hospitality company allowed to operate in Cuba.

Hotel Quinta Avenida
© Reuters

Starwood Hotels signed an agreement to manage three prominent hotels in Havana, the first time in nearly 60 years that a US hospitality company has been allowed to operate in Cuba.

The company announced the groundbreaking deal one day before President Barack Obama is due to arrive in Havana for a historic visit that the administration hopes will help open up Cuban society and its economy.

Thomas Mangas, chief executive of Starwood, said that the entire US hospitality industry was “watching Cuba with great interest” and that it was important to the company to be “a first mover”. The company said it would be making a “multimillion” dollar investment to renovate the hotels.

The announcement comes at a hectic time for Starwood which said on Friday that it favoured a $13.1bn bid for the group by Chinese insurer Anbang. Marriott International, which had been trying to acquire Starwood, is also keen to invest in Cuba, and its chief executive Arne Sorenson is expected to be one of the US business leaders in Havana during Mr Obama’s trip.

Starwood received an authorisation from the US Treasury department last week to begin operating hotels in Cuba — something that would have been prohibited under the longstanding economic embargo.

The hotel deals represent one of the first entries by a US corporation into a Cuban market which is seen as having considerable untapped potential but which is only opening up to American investment at a slow rate.

Tourism in Cuba has boomed since December 2014 when Mr Obama announced his plan to normalise relations with Cuba, with the numbers of international visitors increasing 17 per cent year on year in 2015 to 3.5m, while visits by Americans rose 77 per cent.

The Obama administration has taken a number of measures to make it easier for US citizens to visit Cuba including an announcement on Tuesday that it will lift restrictions on the use of US dollars in transactions with Cuba and that Americans on educational trips to Cuba no longer need to inform the US government about their visit.

Several US airlines have applied for permission to operate additional flights to Cuba, while Carnival Corporation, the cruise operator, has said it hopes to begin operating tours to the island later this year. Airbnb launched in Cuba last year.

Under the agreement reached by Starwood, the group will operate the Hotel Inglaterra, one of the best known properties in central Havana which will join the “Luxury Collection”, and Hotel Quinta Avenida, which will come under the Four Points by Sheraton brand.

The group has also signed a letter of intent to convert the Hotel Santa Isabel into a Luxury Collection property.Starwood-Hotels-signs-landmark-Cuba-deal-—-FT

+++ (FT) Eighty-eight years after Coolidge,Cuba prepares to welcome a US president

(FT)

Refrigerator magnets are displayed for sale in a tourist shop, several showing images of U.S. President Barack Obama, at a market in Havana, Cuba, Monday, March 14, 2016. President Obama will travel to Cuba on March 20. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
The last time a serving US president visited Cuba, its economy was still aglow from the “dance of the millions” sugar boom, the peso was pegged to the dollar, its president was yet to show his dictatorial colours and Calvin Coolidge wanted to distance the US from island affairs.

Eighty-eight years later, when Barack Obama and his sprawling entourage land in Havana on Sunday, the situation is almost completely reversed.

Raúl Castro is an octogenarian president who claims he will step down in 2018; Cuba’s Soviet-style economy is struggling as socialist ally Venezuela implodes; and President Obama hopes to draw the island closer into the US orbit with business deals and other economic measures, such as legalising the dollar.

The one constant is local reaction. Crowds showered Coolidge with roses when he disembarked from the USS Texas, while this weekend’s visit by the first black US president has already conjured up a carnivalesque atmosphere.

Everyone “thinks he [Obama] is going to swoop in and life will be better”, remarked Maritsa Puig, who is in her late 20s and lives in Miami, as she shopped in Havana’s colonial district. “Everyone is acting like it will be the second coming.”

Havana has certainly changed in the 15 months since the two Cold War foes began to re-establish relations. Both sides have agreed to resume direct commercial flights, while the US has removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terror and punched holes in the embargo by loosening travel restrictions.

This has boosted the number of US visitors by 70 per cent, and prompted a rush by others tourists keen to see crumbling Havana “before it all changes”, although the mini-boom has stretched Cuba’s tourist infrastructure to breaking point and rising prices have crowded-out ordinary shoppers.

“Our business has increased 50 per cent since [last] December,” said Niuris Higueras, co-owner of Atelier, an upscale Havana eatery.

It has also fermented hopes of more change, although the two sides have only begun to peel back a half century of laws and attitudes which stymie the business flows that Mr Obama hopes will cement his new approach.

CW6318 1928, in Havana harbour, arrival of the destroyer aboard which is President Coolidge

That includes the embargo, which can only be repealed by the US Congress, and Cuba’s socialist system, which Mr Castro has only tentatively begun to reform, aware that liberalisation in the Soviet Union led to the demise of the ruling Communists.

“It is interesting how popular Cuban expectations have expanded and are growing,” said Frank Mora, director of Latin American studies at Florida International University and a former Pentagon official. “At what time will those expectations be unmet and lead to frustrations? Havana will be thinking about that.”

As part of Mr Obama’s new era of engagement, the US on Tuesday lifted a ban on the use of the dollar in Cuban transactions and allowed them to pass through US banks — thereby facilitating Cuban trade by ending the need for third currency operations.

Verizon has also struck a roaming agreement with state telecoms company Etecsa, with AT&T expected to follow soon. Cruise ship operators, and hotel groups such as Starwood, are also reportedly keen to strike deals with Cuba.

Yet despite the hoopla — which has drawn a slew of celebrity visitors, from Pope Francis to a free Rolling Stones concert later this month — Cuba’s prickly communist party has only slowly loosened its grip.

The sole US investment on the island to date remains a two-man tractor maker from Alabama, while other business people often highlight the difficulties of dealing with a stodgy bureaucracy.

“Cuba is in fashion at the moment,” notes a Castro family member at a chic, standing-room only Havana restaurant where all waitresses wear black nightclub clothes. “But we were here before, and we still will be here after.”

Certainly, Mr Obama’s visit is timely. It comes as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the leading US presidential candidates, have indicated they support closer Cuban relations should they win the White House. Cuba’s Communist Party is meanwhile expected to formalise its halting move towards a market economy at an April congress.

“The timing . . . is important,” said Rafael Hernández, editor of Temas, a Cuban political quarterly. “It is happening . . . while there are still seeds to sow in US and Cuban policy.”

Yet although both governments want to maintain momentum, not all Cubans are convinced. Émigrés to the US have doubled in a year, especially by younger Cubans who fear an end to US immigration policies which automatically give them citizenship.

“Nearly all of my classmates have emigrated,” said Omar, a 35-year-old graphics designer. In February, two star baseball players, Yulieski and Lourdes Gurriel, also defected to the US even though one is married into Mr Castro’s family.

Some in Cuba’s fractured dissident movement also denounce US detente as a bitter betrayal that will only make the regime more repressive.

“State security is warning us not to be provocative, to stay home, that they won’t let us protest when Obama arrives,” said Berta Soler of the Ladies in White group.

Others, such as Reinaldo Escobar, news editor of news site 14ymedio.com, and Daniel Ferrer, leader of Patriotic Union, Cuba’s largest opposition group, believe it creates more space for democracy. “The bottom line is that over the long run better relations with the US is good for ordinary Cubans,” said Mr Escobar.ggffjl